How does technology impact the nonprofit sector?
Philanthropy students studied this question through one of their classes. The school is offering a master’s degree course that focuses on technology, the next generation, and social change this fall.
From firsthand, practical experience, why is learning about technology important?
Alumna Smita Vadakekalam, M.A.’01, has worked for technology strategy consulting firm Heller Consulting for over a decade, and has a wealth of knowledge about technology, change management, and how the nonprofit sector has adapted to an increasingly rapid growth in the use of technology. She’s seen how nonprofits that strategically plan and implement technology in a holistic way can utilize it to further their mission and support the greater good.
Here, she shares insights about technology, its rapid growth and how nonprofits can adapt to changing systems, as well as how nonprofit practitioners can learn more and grow their skills and knowledge by actively participating in technology-related decisions and implementation of new programs.
Starting off, why is technology important? Why should nonprofit professionals invest in training in technology?
SV: We’re in a digital age where every role, whatever industry you work in, touches technology. By planning for it and using it strategically, technology has great potential. It can be fully utilized and enhanced to further an organization’s goals to make a powerful, important impact. In most cases, technology is the underlying infrastructure by which nonprofits rely on to run their organizations.
Let’s say you’re an early career individual wanting to build a career in the nonprofit sector related to technology, or you’re a midcareer professional wanting to learn more. Where do you begin?
SV: It really depends on what kind of role you’re looking for. If you’re looking to be a developer or programmer, certain other skillsets are needed and specialized training (e.g. learning of specific languages, etc.).
If you are starting out in your career, and if you want to work with technology as a part of your job, then having hands-on experience is incredibly important. For example, knowing how to run your organization’s Customer Relationship Manager (CRM) system. If you’re working for a smaller organization, you can gain experience by being the administrator of the system. Then, continually thinking about how you can enhance the tool to further the goals of your department or organization may be your next step.
If you’re a midcareer development director or in another position and you want to become involved with technology, try to play a role on the decision-making committee for a technology transformation project.
Right now, technology is rapidly changing, so there’s typically some kind of transformation project at your organization related to it. Being a part of this committee and helping select and implement the system will help you become more familiar with technology and the good it can do for your nonprofit.
Overall though, it’s incredibly important to have a high-level of understanding about the processes within your organization and know the strategic tools you have at your disposal.
What kinds of trainings or resources are available for those interested in learning more? Why utilize those services?
SV: It’s important to discern whether or not you have the resources available at your organization first.
If you don’t have them readily available, look into free trainings and tutorials that are available. Technology systems also have user groups that share how the system is used at different organizations.
There are a lot of free resources out there to learn the basics or be introduced to these concepts. Coursera, EDX, Udemy offer free resources, and other organizations also offer complimentary materials.
I would also recommend networking and joining groups that work with the nonprofit technology sector, such as NTEN and Tech Soup.
You can also look into hiring a consultancy firm to help guide you on projects, or check out their websites for free material. For example, Heller Consulting has free resources, including blogs, guides, and webinars on its website that include knowledge and experience built from over 20 years of working in the nonprofit and technology space.
Once you learn more about what you’d like to do, what kinds of roles are available in the nonprofit sector where individuals can work mainly with technology?
SV: If you work in development, you can work in development operations, where you keep track of your organization’s various sources of fundraising.
You can look at it from an operational perspective, and work as a CRM administrator.
On the marketing side, you can work as a digital marketing manager, where you’re the one managing the email marketing, website, social media presence, etc.
At larger organizations, you may have roles such as managers and systems or business analysts. These roles tend to be the translators of the business needs to the technology group.
At larger nonprofits, there’s a lot of growth in the area of analytics and reporting. There are several roles that leverage this skill set and may be found in roles such as a data analyst, analytics director, etc.
Outside of a traditional nonprofit, there’s also consulting or product companies that build products for nonprofits. They look for people who know the nonprofit sector well.
There are a lot of opportunities to either work with technology on the side or as the main focus of your job.
What role does strategy play in using technology?
SV: It’s critical. There are so many choices you have when it comes to technological tools. You have to be strategic about the tool you’re choosing and why. You can waste time and money looking at these “shiny new objects” that don’t do what you think they do, so it’s vital to conduct a thorough planning process; be knowledgeable about your strategy and what product best fits that.
That’s often where Heller Consulting assists. We help curate the choices, and assist organizations in articulating their short-term and long-term goals. Then, we help find the best system that fits.
Beyond the fact that technology itself has changed over the last 10 years, what else have you seen occur in the nonprofit sector related to those changes?
SV: Before, decisions about technology occurred in siloes. Those decisions came out of individual departments and their budgets. They thought of technology and its use in a very narrow sense.
Now, we see many people call us for projects at the C-level. These individuals want to make strategic decisions about their nonprofit, and they want to achieve growth at the organization. They recognize that technology plays a huge role in meeting that strategic plan.
In other words, they’re looking at it from a holistic perspective, and understand the important investment they’re implementing.
What steps should they take to prepare for a career working in some regard with technology?
SV: Take opportunities, like internships or classes that focus on technology in the sector.
When you’re in your first career, be curious, be open to learning, and be a problem solver. You can learn a lot about the sector and technology systems through free resources, trainings, and tutorials at your job.
It’s always important to elevate your soft skills. Be a good communicator, understand how people consume and process information, and figure out how you’re going to help teach them how to use these pieces of technology.
You may need to make the case to some people in your organization as to why these tools are important to have. Be able to match that reasoning with the larger vision of the organization, and communicate that effectively.
What advice do you have for someone interested in consulting at a firm that works with technology?
SV: It depends on the type of consulting you are interested in, although it’s important to have hands-on experience with a technology system at a nonprofit. For example, at Heller Consulting, we look for individuals who have hands on experience using a CRM system, such as Salesforce. The important thing is to understand how technology is used at your nonprofit.
However, it’s important to have someone with “soft skills” as well. Some examples of these skills are solid communication skills, time management, public speaking, active listening, collaboration, problem-solving, and knowledge of fundraising and the various business processes that support nonprofits.